Can Alcaraz, Sinner or Medvedev take down Djokovic in Melbourne?

January 14, 2024

What are the first-round matches to watch? Who has that Cinderella look? Which contender has an easy road, and which has a tough one?

Can Alcaraz, Sinner or Medvedev take down Djokovic in Melbourne?

The main theme of this year’s Australian Open men’s event - can anyone beat Novak Djokovic? - is old. We’ve been asking the same question for a decade now, and the answer has almost always been no.

But while that’s still the biggest question at the year’s first Grand Slam, it’s certainly not the only one worth asking, or thinking about. Now that the tournament’s draw - its roadmap - is in front of us, I’ll focus on five things to look for as we make our trip through Melbourne Park over the next fortnight.

What are the first-round matches to watch?

Ben Shelton vs. Roberto Bautista Agut

The explosive Shelton, 21, is defending quarterfinalist’s points, and the gritty RBA has a history of marathon wins Down Under. Both have played well to start the year.

Bonus: If Shelton wins this, and his next two matches, he’ll likely get a rematch with Djokovic. Hold the phone for that one.

Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. Matteo Berrettini

Tsitsipas made the final here last year, but Berrettini made the semis the year before. Tsitsipas has won all three of their previous meetings, including one at the Australian Open.

Alex de Minaur vs. Milos Raonic

De Minaur looked stellar in the United Cup, where he ended Djokovic’s 18-match win streak in Australia. Raonic, who typically plays well here, can take the racquet out of even the hottest player’s hand.

Frances Tiafoe vs. Borna Coric

Tiafoe has a new coach, is seeded 17th, and has reached the quarters here in the past. The unseeded Coric won their only previous match, back in Davis Cup six years ago.

Felix Auger-Aliassime vs. Dominic Thiem

These are two guys with good histories in Australia who are trying to make big rebounds in 2024. Thiem won their only meeting, at the US Open in 2020.

Who has that Cinderella look?

Every Slam has its Cinderella stories, and the Aussie Open often has room for a surprise semifinalist. In recent years, Tommy Paul, Aslan Karatsev, Karen Khachanov, Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund (remember the last two?) have reached that round Down Under. Tsitsipas made his breakthrough by doing the same in 2019.

Form-wise, the first name that pops out is de Minaur’s. He’s in the Top 10, he’s playing well, and he’s talking tough - he seems to think he has a lot of doubters, and he wants to prove them wrong. If he survives Raonic in his opener, the hometown favorite could face Nicolas Jarry and Andrey Rublev soon after - winnable matches.

And how about 32-year-old Grigor Dimitrov? He nearly made the final here in 2017, he just won his first tournament in six years in Brisbane, and he’s knocking on the Top 10 door again. He also has a tough opener in Marton Fucsovics, but the closest seed to him is Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.

Which contender has an easy road, and which has a tough one?

Djokovic’s quarter is pretty strong. His path to the semis could lead him through Gael Monfils or Andy Murray in the third round; a grudge match against Shelton in the fourth; and a quarterfinal against either Tsitsipas or Taylor Fritz. But this is Djokovic in Australia, so “difficulty” is a relative term.

On paper, Alcaraz and Sinner seem to have easier roads. The seeds in Sinner’s quarter include Rublev, Khachanov, de Minaur and Tiafoe. Alcaraz, meanwhile, may need to get by Dan Evans or Lorenzo Sonego in the second round; Alexander Bublik in the third; Paul in the fourth; and Zverev, Cam Norrie or Casper Ruud in the quarters. But as we saw last season, as brilliant as Alcaraz can be, he can also have very off days. Usually, the extended best-of-five format is his friend; he’s made the semis or better at his last four majors.

No. 3 seed Daniil Medvedev may have the most intriguing path. He could play Auger-Aliassime in the third round; they went five sets here a few years ago. After that, he could face Dimitrov, and in the quarters he could get Holger Rune, who comes to Melbourne with an all-star coaching team featuring Boris Becker and Severin Luthi.

Who’s returning to action, and who isn’t?

Marin Cilic should receive a warm welcome to Melbourne Park, where he reached the final in 2018 and the semis way back in 2010. A knee injury last January kept him out for almost all of last year. Now 35, he’ll open against Fabian Marozsan.

How about the straw that (occasionally) stirs the drink, Nick Kyrgios? A knee injury forced him out of his home Slam last year; this time he’ll be sidelined by wrist issue. By the time he plays in Melbourne again, he’ll be 29. To that end, this inveterate chatterer already seems to be laying the groundwork for a post-retirement career as a tennis talking head. Kyrgios, who analyzed the ATP Finals for Tennis Channel, is hosting video podcasts during the tournament, and will commentate for ESPN and Eurosport.

Who is going to win?

As I wrote above, the theme is the same as always: Can anyone dethrone Djokovic and prevent him from winning an 11th title here, and 25th Slam overall?

This year, though, the question isn’t a moot one.

Djokovic will start with an injury issue surrounding his wrist. But overcoming ailments Down Under is something of a tradition for him. More threatening will be the presence of the other Top 4 seeds: Alcaraz, Sinner and Medvedev.

All three have shown that they can beat Djokovic on non-clay surfaces, in matches he desperately wants to win. Last year, Alcaraz did it in the Wimbledon final, and Sinner did it in the Davis Cup semifinals. In 2021, Medvedev ended Djokovic’s Grand Slam quest in the US Open final. Any of them could do it again on the right day.

Sinner was virtually unbeatable at the end of 2023, but I’m going to guess he can’t quite keep that level up to start 2024.

Alcaraz is capable of anything; unfortunately for him, that also means he can have a bad day against the wrong opponent.

Medvedev, meanwhile, must feel as if he should already have an Australian Open title, after his collapse against Rafael Nadal in the 2022 final. He also has matched up as well as anyone with Djokovic over the last five years, and he’s coming off a cathartic victory over Alcaraz at last year’s US Open.

Semifinals: Djokovic d. Sinner; Medvedev d. Alcaraz

Final: Medvedev d. Djokovic —

Can Alcaraz, Sinner or Medvedev take down Djokovic in Melbourne?